by Molly Daniels
Last week, the Board of Trustees decided that Whitworth will remain affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). In addition to maintaining a relationship with the PC(USA), the university will start developing relationships with other denominations and Presbyterian organizations, as well as refining theological language that describes the religious identity of the university.
Importance of partnerships
Dean of spiritual life Terry McGonigal said partnering with organizations outside of Whitworth is important because of the benefits those relationships provide for both the students and the organizations.
“Our first responsibility is the education of the students. This is the way in which the university also serves churches,” McGonigal said.
He said that churches often look to Whitworth for certain resources, such as ministry interns. Whitworth also has connections with many non-Presbyterian churches in Spokane.
“We are thrilled that our students are involved with a variety of churches in Spokane. We’re glad to have these relationships, and we want to deepen them,” McGonigal said.
Professor of theology Keith Beebe said Whitworth will not be exclusively related to the PC(USA) in the future, but will instead maintain its reformed and evangelical identity and expand its interests by exploring new relationships.
Presbyterian churches leaving the PC(USA)
The PC(USA) is the oldest and largest of the nation’s three most prominent Presbyterian organizations. According to the PC(USA) website, more than two million people worship in the 10,000 churches affiliated with the PC(USA).
Some churches have left the PC(USA) due to the recent positions that the organization has taken on certain social issues. Beebe said there have been changes made to the Book of Order—a set of directions for Presbyterian church government, worship and rules of discipline—to make it more flexible. The PC(USA) changed their definition of marriage to include same-sex marriage, and it has approved the ordination of homosexuals.
“Underlying issues give rise to others. The more conservative side sees this as symptomatic and having to do with the authority of scripture,” Beebe said.
Whitworth alumna Amy Erickson ’12 is an intern at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. The church left the PC(USA) and joined another Presbyterian association, the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO), in April 2012. Erickson was at Whitworth when the decision to leave the PC(USA) was made.
“The body of elders had a session, and they decided to recommend to the congregation that they leave the PC(USA),” Erickson said.
Erickson said that her congregation’s reason for leaving the PC(USA) was that they thought the views it promoted were a distraction from what the church valued.
“We thought that being in this organization isn’t helping us perform Christ’s mission,” Erickson said.
The elders held a straw vote to determine if the congregation supported the idea of leaving, and the majority of the congregation was in agreement with the motion. In late April there was an official vote to leave the PC(USA).
Some church members worried the church would not be able to keep the property on which it was built, but the church reached an agreement with its former presbytery.
“The church was part of the Pueblo Presbytery, and they owned the land. They used the gracious dismissal policy so we didn’t have to buy the property. The church still has to pay dues based on headcount, but eventually they won’t have to pay anymore,” Erickson said.
She said she knows of other cases in which presbyteries were less willing to compromise with departing churches.
Erickson said that she thought the process went well overall.
“It’s never easy to go through this kind of divorce, but it was easier because the whole congregation was on board. This kind of thing often splits the church,” Erickson said.
Erickson said she still recognizes the benefits of the PC(USA) and that her congregation’s decision was not meant to make a statement against the organization.
“There wasn’t an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. We know that there are so many faithful people in the PC(USA). We just knew that we can be more effective for Christ—and do what we feel to be best for ministry—by partnering with other organizations,” Erickson said.
ECO and EPC
Beebe said five to seven churches leave the PC(USA) each week. Those churches will often join a more conservative organization. ECO, founded in 2012, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), founded in 1981, tend to take more traditional stances than the PC(USA) does on social issues.
“ECO and the EPC are the most viable options. Other ones tend to be smaller and much more conservative,” Beebe said.
Beebe is an ordained pastor, and he said that he has been asked by some pastors in Spokane to speak to congregations about the idea of leaving the PC(USA).
He said he talked about dealing with conflicts and how the congregation could think about the current state of the denomination. He said he also told the congregation about the history of previous controversies in the Presbyterian Church.
“A year and a half ago, a number of leaders in the more conservative part of the denomination left to form a new one,” he said. This new denomination became the ECO. Beebe said that a number of other conservative churches have left the PC(USA) and joined the EPC.
“If a church doesn’t like what’s going on in the denomination, they have several choices. They can stay in the denomination; they can go to the EPC, which has been around for about 30 years; they can go to ECO,” Beebe said.
Erickson said her church has not changed significantly since becoming part of ECO.
“It’s not that different, but in the long term it gives the church a lot more freedom, more accountability and healthier relationships with other churches we’re partnering with,” Erickson said.
McGonigal said that as churches leave the PC(USA), some choose not to join another organization. They may decide instead to function independently, which means that new denominations are now being created under Presbyterianism.
“Some students here are a part of these new denominations, and we want to support these students,” McGonigal said.
McGonigal said one of the problems is that Whitworth has not changed its financial aid policy toward Presbyterian students. He gave the example of the Samuel Robinson Scholarship Association.
“One of the requirements is that the student must be a member of a PC(USA) Church. If the student’s church has left the PC(USA), they do not qualify for the award,” McGonigal said.
Whitworth University is currently working on several different connections with Presbyterian organizations, including some local and regional Presbyterian churches, as well as the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest and the North Puget Sound Presbytery, which are affiliated with the PC(USA), McGonigal said.
“We’ve always had these wonderful relationships, but they weren’t as targeted and specific as we intend them to be moving forward,” McGonigal said.
Whitworth is now trying to make those relationships more beneficial to both students and the communities.
“We’re trying to help the students with specific connections for summer ministry internships,” McGonigal said.
Whitworth defined theologically
McGonigal said that over the past year, the school has been using input from current students, faculty, staff, alumni, board members and other friends of the university to develop language that describes Whitworth theologically. They came up with seven words: Christian, reformed, evangelical, ecumenical, global, missional and Presbyterian. In the next year, the university will pursue an ongoing dialogue about what those words mean. There may be Prime Time discussions, panels or lectures to talk about the meaning of those words.
“If you take any of these words out, you don’t have a complete theological description of Whitworth,” McGonigal said.
Students will have to take into account the relationships Whitworth has with various outside organizations, as well as the changes being made in Whitworth’s religious affiliation, if they are to have a correct understanding of how the university relates to these seven words.
Contact Molly Daniels at email@example.com.